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Stretching Out
Stretching Out

Written by dwight normile    Thursday, 31 December 2015 09:44    PDF Print
Stretching Out: The Year in Review, From A to Z
(11 votes, average 4.09 out of 5)

As another year comes to a close, we offer the following alphabetical reflection on the gymnastics world from the last 12 months. Happy New Year.

A: Andrade: When Rebeca Andrade tore her ACL in June, Brazil's chances of qualifying a team to the 2016 Olympics took a hit. After Flavia Saraiva had a bad day in Glasgow, the team finished ninth and missed an automatic berth by less than 0.50. With the Olympic test event in Rio in April, the Brazilian women should have little trouble securing one of the four remaining team berths, especially if Andrade is 100%. Brazilian coach Alexander Alexandrov should breathe a little easier once that goal is reached.

B: Biles/Boorman: Simone and Aimee have been together since the beginning of Biles' gymnastics career. Their amazing partnership has yielded three straight U.S. and world all-around titles — and Biles is still improving. The Rio Olympics will be their biggest test yet, but the odds are in their favor to ace it.

C: Compulsories: In December, the IG Facebook page featured two compulsory floor routines: Natalia Yurchenko (1985) and Vitaly Scherbo (1992). Of the 54 comments, only one was negative. So it is troubling that the FIG Code of Points continues to promote the sport by counting a gymnasts' most difficult skills (8 for women, 10 for men). Until the Code requires beautiful basics, the routines will continue to resemble efforts of sheer survival instead of the mastery on display by Yurchenko and Scherbo.

"Getting rid of compulsories was the beginning of the end," wrote Eric William Jones. And from Robbie Bourassa: "I miss the artistic value of the routines. No one is elegant or refined anymore. It's all about the big tricks." Isn't it time the FIG listened to its fan base? They sure didn't when it came to dropping the 10.0.

D: Douglas: Defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas flew below the radar at both the U.S. championships, where she placed fifth, and the Glasgow worlds, where she won the all-around silver. Could she become the first woman to win consecutive Olympics since Vera Caslavska (1964-68)? She's got a chance.

E: Ellie Black: Five medals, three of them gold, at the Pan American Games in Toronto galvanized this talented Canadian as a major player on the world scene. She also led the team to an Olympic berth at the 2015 worlds, where Canada placed seventh (sixth in team finals).

F: Florida/Faehn: Two days after she led her Florida Gators to their third straight NCAA team title, head coach Rhonda Faehn resigned to become Sr. Vice President of the Women's Program for USA Gymnastics. Talk about going out on top.

G: Glasgow: The organizers of the 2015 World Championships should be commended for creating a fan-friendly event, but media were treated as an afterthought. One more thing: Who thought that pink carpet on the podium would work with red Gymnova equipment?

H: Hernandez/Haney: Lauren Hernandez is special. The 2015 U.S. junior champion, who defeated best friend and defending champion Jazmyn Foberg by 0.10 last August, might be the most entertaining gymnast in the world on floor exercise. And that's also a credit to her passionate coach, Maggie Haney.

I: Iordache: While she had a horrible day in qualifications at worlds, Larisa Iordache relied on experience to win the all-around bronze. Since Romania placed 13th in Glasgow, Iordache definitely will be needed at the test event in April.

J: J-Lo: Venerable Venezuelan Jessica Lopez continues to represent South American gymnastics with class and grace. And at 29, she won the World Cup Series last March, which added 24,000 Swiss francs to her bank account.

K: Kenzo: On floor exercise, Kenzo Shirai has won two world titles and one silver medal as a teenager. A Yokohama native whose parents are gymnastics coaches, Shirai excels at twisting elements, which may qualify as the biggest understatement of 2015. His name is in the Code for a quadruple-twisting back layout and triple-twisting front layout, and he debuted a layout triple-double in December. Does he really need six passes to prove he's the best on floor?

L: Larduet: Manrique Larduet has attitude and amplitude, and after the 19-year-old Cuban adds a little polish to his power, he'll likely be the next world or Olympic all-around champion. Really.

M: Mikulak: It is ironic that Sam Mikulak follows Larduet on this list, since many in the crowd at the 2015 Pan Am Games thought he should have followed the Cuban in the all-around. Instead, Mikulak defeated Larduet by 0.05, and the latter went on to win the 2015 world silver while Mikulak nursed a slightly torn Achilles' tendon (triple full on floor). But Mikulak had shown his amazing abilities in August by running away with his third straight U.S. title, the first three-peat since Paul Hamm (2002-04).

N: Nichols: Maggie Nichols shone brightly in 2015. She finished second to Simone Biles at the U.S. championships, which is like winning in any other country. And in her first worlds in Glasgow, she continued to glow with clutch performances. That she did only three events in prelims but all four in team finals was telling — the explanation given, however, was thinner than a crepe. Creating lineups based on training should not supersede competitive routines in a televised meet with real judges.

O: Oklahoma: Heading into the NCAA championships, the Sooner men and women each had a chance to pull off the rare undefeated season. The men accomplished it, winning the NCAA team title by a landslide, but the women stumbled in their final meet, the Super Six Final, where they finished third. Still, to be in that position was remarkable.

P: Paseka: Maria Paseka's vault gold in Glasgow was the first world title for a Russian woman since Aliya Mustafina's beam gold in 2013. Her tears on the podium said it all.

Q: Quit: We'll call it a retirement, which Canadian Victoria Moors announced at the Canadian championships in May. At age 18, she told the Cambridge Times, among other reasons, that "there's nothing more I could accomplish." Moors' 10th all-around at the 2013 worlds was a record for a Canadian woman until Ellie Black placed ninth in 2014 and seventh in 2015. Still, Moors, coached by Elvira Saadi, left her mark on the sport and her hame in the Code of Points — twice: double-twisting double layout on floor and an underswing to layout front-half dismount from uneven bars.

R: Ruggeri: As alternate to three U.S. world teams (2010, ’13, ’14), Paul Ruggeri chose to embrace the role. "I realize that even being the alternate is something that many never accomplish," he rightly reasoned. When he finally was named to the 2015 team, he hit when it counted. He went four-for-four in team finals and the U.S. men finished fifth, which was probably their ceiling in Glasgow.

S: Sharp: The arrest and subsequent suicide of Marvin Sharp left the gymnastics world stunned. On Sept. 20, the day after he died, his top gymnast, 2009 world champion Bridget Sloan, aptly tweeted one word: speechless.

T: Tie: The four-way tie for the uneven bars gold in Glasgow can be taken in different ways: 1) Festive (Yippee, half the field won!); 2) Coincidence (What are the chances?); 3) Sad (We've heard of co-champions, but there is no term for four winners. And there's a reason for that.); 4) Ridiculous (What are these judges getting paid for, anyway?).

U: Uchimura: What else can be said about King Kohei? We're running out of superlatives to describe his seven-year winning streak that includes one Olympic and six straight world all-around titles. Should he win the gold in Rio, he will match Japanese compatriot Sawao Kato's Olympic all-around feat of gold (1968), gold (1972), silver (1976), only in reverse order. Uchimura can also be credited with taking some of the glare off Simone Biles, who is setting records of her own.

V: Vernyayev: For the second worlds in a row, Oleg Vernyayev faltered to fourth in the all-around. In between, however, he was superman, winning the World Cup series, the European championships, the European Games and the University Games. Still considered a candidate to end Kohei Uchimura's winning streak, Vernyayev will have another chance at the Olympics. Will hard luck follow the Ukrainian to Rio?

W: Whitlock A year after winning the all-around silver at the world championships, Max Whitlock edged teammate Louis Smith on pommel horse at the Glasgow worlds to become the first male world champion from Great Britain.

X: X: The Roman numeral for 10, which is sorely missed as the international brand of gymnastics. To fill that void, let's celebrate the 10 world gold medals of both Kohei Uchimura and Simone Biles. Biles' 10, which she earned in just three years, is an all-time record for women's gymnastics.

Y: You: (No, not you.) The most successful Chinese gymnast in Glasgow, You Hao won the parallel bars gold, the rings silver and the team bronze. He was one of the few Chinese men to show clean lines, and he had the highest D-scores in both of his apparatus finals.

Z: Zonderland: Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands has risen to such a level that even his failures are notable. In Glasgow, the defending world and Olympic high bar champion did not qualify to the high bar final. It was his first absence from the world and Olympic high bar finals since 2006. As of now, he has not qualified to Rio.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 28 November 2014 10:42    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 10 New Rules To Spice Up Gymnastics
(27 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

So here we are, eight years into the 'new' Code of Points, and what do we have to show for it? For starters, many routines have doubled in length, while those with a time limit are presented in fast-forward mode. The women's all-around field has become thinner than a crepe, and some gymnasts are throwing tricks they have yet to master because they understand that the D-score, immune to deduction, is the most direct path to the podium.

Is gymnastics literally spinning out of control? Perhaps. To help rein in the madness and improve the sport's audience appeal, I have come up with a new rule for each event. And, who knows, they might even prevent an injury or two.

WOMEN’S VAULT

Any fall, including just a hand touch, should incur a 3.0 deduction. Gymnasts who fall on a handspring-double front in qualifications should not be granted a finals berth simply because they tried the hardest vault in the Code. Gymnastics competition should be about technique and mastery, not “attempts” at success. We will call this the “Common Sense” rule.

UNEVEN BARS

Any empty swing, such as those after a Shaposhnikova-type skill, shall incur a deduction. Why this has never been imposed remains a mystery rivaling the Bermuda Triangle. If a gymnast is talented enough to fling herself from the low bar to the high from a free hip, Stalder or sole circle, she should be able to do something after she catches.

BALANCE BEAM

Add an actual mount requirement in which the gymnast must either, a) use a board and show flight, or b) exert at least 5.0 METs (metabolic equivalents) without the use of a board. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 1.0 MET is defined as the energy it takes to “sit quietly,” which is not unlike many balance beam mounts today.

WOMEN’S FLOOR EXERCISE

Effective immediately, gymnasts are required to perform no more than three tumbling passes and no fewer than one pass comprising three different leaps, none of which may be initiated from two feet or include sketchy mid-air twists. These spinning jumps have become the bane of women’s floor routines, and there isn’t a judge on the planet who can accurately determine their completion. Should a gymnast attempt one of these whirling dervishes, the judge retains the right to sound a gong, thus ending the performance.

MEN'S FLOOR EXERCISE

Shorten the routines to five passes and the top eight skills (instead of 10), max, and some body part above the waist must touch the mat after every pass (except, of course, the dismount). This should help put the “exercise” back into the event. Until that happens, the event will be referred to as "Men's Tumbling." Oh … one more minor tweak: eliminate the 70-second time limit. Great gymnastics should never, ever be rushed!

POMMEL HORSE

This may sound radical, but give it a chance: Implement one “2-second hold” element that is not the mount. Pommel horse has developed into a mind-numbing event for spectators, who rarely know when to applaud. So let’s help them. Imagine these combos: flairs to a planche; flair handstand, stoop through to V or Manna (crowds will go nuts); scissor to straddle-L on one pommel. The possibilities are endless, just as pommel horse routines seem to be now.

RINGS

Require a swing to handstand in both directions. Too many musclemen perform endless strength sequences, one requisite swing to handstand, and then a dismount. Rings champions should be able to swing in both directions, don't you think?

MEN’S VAULT

I am not picking on Olympic and world champion Yang Hak Seon, but if you qualify to an event final, your second vault must feature a difference greater than moving one hand approximately eight inches from where it touched on vault No. 1. With his Yang-1 (handspring-triple-twisting front) and Yang-2 (Kasamatsu-21/2), Yang is practically doing the same vault twice (even though he could land neither at the 2014 worlds). Maybe men's vault finals should require at least one double somersault? You decide. (And yes, I guess I am picking on Yang a little bit.)

PARALLEL BARS

This rule is both simple and effective: no more than one front uprise-swing handstand per routine. Double somersaults to the upper arms are followed by this transition 99.99999999999999% of the time. P-bars has so much more to offer.

HORIZONTAL BAR

This one’s great too. Deduct 0.1 for every giant swing that does not feature a change of grip or body position as it goes over the top. If you’re that guy cranking empty giants before and after big releases, and prior to your dismount, there will be a price to pay. Finally.

 
Written by dwight normile    Tuesday, 28 October 2014 10:26    PDF Print
It's Time to Really Make the Code of Points Open-Ended
(15 votes, average 3.80 out of 5)

The World Championships in Nanning, China, marked the sixth worlds to be judged by the Code of Points that was implemented in 2006. I used to call this set of rules the open-ended Code. But after watching it in action the past eight years, I can no longer purport that this scoring system is truly open-ended.

This Code is only open-ended on one of its two prongs: Difficulty. Even Difficulty has a soft ceiling. Only a limited number of skills can be counted (eight for women and 10 for men), and Element Group limitations further restrict skill selection. Even so, the D-score is the only portion of the final score that continues to grow.

Until both prongs are open-ended, meaning that Execution can enjoy the same expansion as Difficulty, this Code is more of a contradiction than a solution to gymnastics’ ongoing debate on how to evaluate its performers.

Currently, final scores are the sum of the results from two basic math operations: addition and subtraction. Difficulty and Execution are two adjacent escalators; as one goes up, the other goes down.

Until Execution becomes more than just a subtractive process, this Code will continue to lack a critical evaluation tool. Until a gymnast like Kohei Uchimura can compensate his minor execution flaws with his abundance of virtuosity—and actually exceed 10.0—this Code will never reach its potential. Its ceiling may move up and down at times, but it will always be present. And that is not an open-ended Code.

When Uchimura receives nothing for his exemplary technique and amplitude, but still gets hit with execution deductions, it becomes more clear that the judging criteria could use another major fix. Check out his floor routine from the Nanning all-around final here. He stuck everything and received a 9.166 for execution. Makes no sense. Does this Code require landings with feet and ankles together, chest held high? Because that is neither realistic nor safe. Even in slow motion Uchimura looked perfect to me, so why did he score closer to 9.0 than 10.0?

Let’s remember that this Code of Points was created because somebody did their math wrong at the 2004 Athens Olympics. It was an objective mistake in adding the Difficulty score for Yang Tae Young. Ironically, this new Code minimized subjectivity—or common sense—to the point where gymnastics intuition was no longer integral to judging a routine.

This current Code began its reign at the 2006 World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, where Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari won the all-around gold. Since she fell from balance beam, the Code was roundly criticized by fans. In reality, that Code was still a beta version (and the depth of that all-around field was relatively thin).

This Code isn’t all bad. The gymnast who does more should get credit for it. But at least some effort should be made to blend the multitude of tricks into a harmonious routine. And that, in my opinion, is the saddest byproduct of this Code. Many routines, especially on balance beam and men’s floor, resemble one of those sweepstakes where the lucky winner gets five minutes to toss as many items as he can into a shopping cart.

Getting back to core of this Code, the “what” is protected but the “how” is not. Raw substance is free while brilliant style is taxed. Sure, judges may subconsciously deduct less from gymnasts like Uchimura, but that’s not good enough. It’s still cheating.

There needs to be concrete judging criteria for amplitude, creativity and virtuosity. Yes, it would be a subjective evaluation, but these are qualities that separate the true stars from the rest. If a judge can dock gymnasts 0.10, 0.30 or 0.50 for small, medium and large errors, why can’t he also reward them for small, medium and large achievements? Let the judges use their entire brains.

Another smart change would be to lower all Difficulty values, which would finally give the E-score more clout. This could change the outcome of an all-around competition, in particular, because a clean, technically sound gymnast could possibly catch—and defeat—a sloppy trickster. (I have also written more than once that the D-score should get hit with the same deductions as the E-score.)

In 2006 the FIG eliminated the 10.0 as the top score in an effort to better separate gymnasts. That goal has been achieved primarily through the D-score. But until exemplary execution is rewarded the way hardcore difficulty is, this Code will never be as open-ended as it could.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 18 July 2014 14:31    PDF Print
Stretching Out: 20 Gymnastics Truths We All Know
(19 votes, average 3.95 out of 5)

When you spend more than half your life involved in gymnastics, either as a gymnast, coach, judge or loyal fan — or all of the above — you accumulate an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. You appreciate its history, understand its nuances. Ultimately, your intuition and sensibilities serve as guides in judging everything from the latest rule change to annoying trends on floor exercise. With that in mind, I hereby offer 20 Irrefutable Gymnastics Truths. And I encourage readers to submit their own to the list:

1) Really difficult tricks are not as beautiful as simple ones done with form and amplitude.

2) The open-ended Code of Points has fixed the problem of too many ties, and nothing else.

3) The 3-up, 3-count team final format is a big rip-off for paying fans and gymnasts, alike.

4) The 5-up, 5-count team finals at men's NCAAs is intense and exciting.

5) The real difference between a 9.90 and 10.0 in NCAA women's gymnastics is 0.40. (You know what I mean, don't you?)

6) NCAA women's judges need to stop giving so many 9.90s.

7) Compulsories separate the wheat from the chaff more so than optionals.

8) Gymnasts who over-celebrate after an average routine look foolish.

9) Gymnasts who don't celebrate after an awesome routine show class.

10) YouTube has eliminated many of the surprises that once surfaced at major competitions.

11) That gymnast who missed her Jaeger every time in warm-ups will probably miss it in the meet.

12) There is usually nothing good to eat at age-group meets held in a gym club.

13) If you've seen three different gymnasts perform an Onodi without wobbling in the last decade, you are in the minority.

14) Men's floor exercise has literally, and sadly, become a race against the clock.

15) Major meets would be more interesting if Execution scores reached the mid- to high-nines for gymnasts who deserve it.

16) There is no perfect system to judge gymnastics.

17) The smallest gymnast at any given competition (usually female) will become a crowd favorite.

18) Gabby Douglas's recent split with Liang Chow was as shocking as Sarah Patterson's retirement at Alabama.

19) If he hits, Sam Mikulak is still the closest pursuer to Kohei Uchimura.

20) The next women's all-around world champion is anyone's guess.

 

 

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 09 May 2014 12:12    PDF Print
Stretching Out: A Letter From ... Difficulty
(12 votes, average 3.92 out of 5)

Greetings to all my fans, friends and followers! Please accept my apologies for not returning your calls, messages and tweets. I have never been so busy in all my life! The open-ended Code of Points has completely changed the business model for gymnastics. I used to be bundled with Artistry, Originality and Virtuosity. And a long time ago, Compulsories purchased all the stuff that never sold very well.

All that has changed, though. The demand for me alone has gone through the roof! For the first time, I’m getting orders from places like the Dominican Republic and Egypt, for crying out loud! And they're buying the rarest of elements, the ones I keep locked inside glass cases! I had produced only a few of those super tricks, but now they’re all gone. My inventory of mind-boggling F’s, G’s and H’s is completely and utterly depleted, while my shelves are overflowing with some beautiful—and apparently useless—basics. Even at half-price, my gorgeous deep Stalders and split leaps just sit there, collecting dust. Everybody wants the updated versions with all the extra frills, instead. Since when did gymnastics skills become like smartphones?

So that’s why you haven’t heard from me in a while. I have been working days, nights and weekends, dreaming up a whole new line of unbelievable super skills. It hasn’t been easy, because I’m venturing into new territory with these crazy combos. Writing the instruction manuals takes forever, so I wish people would stop throwing them away. This new stuff is really hard. Don’t try step 4 before you’ve mastered steps 1-3! I am tired of being blamed for all the injuries. Hey, I didn’t make the rules, people!

My mix-and-match tumbling elements are doing really well, however. Buy one set and you’ve got the ingredients for three or four passes! These new men's floor routines alone are making me rich! I thought I had reached my limit until someone placed an order for a 4.5 twist on floor. It came from some Japanese dude who is dismounting with a quad! I didn’t think that was even possible. To cover my bases, I have just added the 4.5 and a quintuple twist to my next catalog, which is at the printer now.

Life sure is funny sometimes. I just got an emotional email from my longtime colleague Artistry. We worked together for years, but I never really knew how she felt about me. She called me a bully! Can you believe it? I guess people will say anything in an email.

Truth is, I always felt suffocated by her. She never let me do anything the least bit daring. Everything had to perfect. Nothing out of place. Geez, loosen up, will ya? Live a little!

In the end, I believe her OCD got the better of her. Under the current rules, she and I just could rarely coexist in the same routine. It was a like a tug-of-war, her penchant for perfection against my need to spread my wild wings. Something had to give.

Anyway, I’ve learned that the key to any successful business is to know your market, and I listened to my customers. They screamed loud and clear: “We want bigger tricks and longer routines!” Nobody seemed the least bit interested in downsizing and working on their E-scores. Why would they? They’re not open-ended. Duh!

Artistry thinks she should be a reward, a separate bonus category. Frankly, I think she is just bitter. She’s been out of steady work for some time now, and pines for days long gone.

Word on the street is that Artistry is trying to brainwash the juniors now: the talented American Laurie Hernandez, Enus Mariani of Italy, a few others. Eventually, they will all see the light. They can get by on the junior circuit with the gorgeous dance, but it won’t get them far after Sweet 16. That’s when they’ll be desperate to score a 16.00, and a higher E-score won’t be the answer.

I never got along with Artistry’s cousin, Compulsories. In her eyes, I was invisible anyway. Never gave me the time of day. Can’t say I was sorry to see her go in 1997. She was just plain weird. Some purists want to bring her back, but where would that leave me?

I do miss my old buddies Originality and Virtuosity, though. Someone told me they were in a retirement home, suffering from neglect. I enjoyed having them around when I was younger. We had some really great times together. I’m sure it didn’t help when they got edited out of the judging criteria. The rules makers were determined to remove any human aspect from judging, which remains a debatable decision. (I’m keeping my big trap shut about that, as long as my inbox is filled with new orders every morning!)

Risk—Originality and Virtuosity’s third Musketeer—sort of faded into the background. Everyone has Risk now. Instead of the exception, it is now the rule. And I’m getting the blame for that, too!

Apparently, I’ve gotten so extreme—I prefer to call it “advanced”—that nobody can relate to me anymore. They say I’ve changed.

I’ll have to admit, it is kind of lonely at the top. Through no intentions of my own, I have risen to a lofty, isolated perch, yet I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom. Difficulty … the rich new king of Artistic Gymnastics! How ironic is that?

I need to update my Facebook status, send out a tweet. Whether they want to or not, my friends and followers need to know how I’m really feeling.

So here it is: I’m really, really sorry! I never meant for things to end up this way. I am embarrassed by my greedy excess. I just want to be part of the team again. Can somebody—anybody—please help me?


A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of International Gymnast Magazine. To order back issues, or subscribe to the print and/or digital edition of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

 


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